Whitesburg KY
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The Way We Were

Defending Eastern Ky. in 1923



On January 18, 1923, The Mountain Eagle was six weeks away from its 16th birthday. It had been a decade since the railroad reached into Letcher County and coal mining began in earnest.

Coal camps — communities built to house the thousands of miners needed to dig coal, mostly by hand — had sprouted nearly everywhere in Letcher County by then and were known by names such as Seco, Haymond, Dunham, Carbon Glow, Kona, Fleming and Elsico.

Many of the coal camps were melting pots of miners and their families both American-born — including African-Americans from the southern states — and European-born. The communities were ultra-modern for the time and had their own hospital, theater, general store, hotel and other amenities associated with more urban living. Some even had their own professional baseball team.

Despite the changes that had occurred in eastern Kentucky by winter 1923, most residents from elsewhere in the state, particularly from the Bluegrass region, had little respect for people who lived in the mountains. As might be imagined, people who were living here took offense to the lack of respect the region was getting from elsewhere. This can be heard in a speech delivered by Letcher County resident Emery L. Frazier during the annual meeting of the Hazard Coal Operators Exchange, which was held at the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington on the weekend beginning January 11, 1923.

Among those in the audience for Frazier’s speech were Governor Edwin P. Morrow. Among those traveling by train from Letcher County to Lexington for the meeting were top officials from Consolidation Coal, South East Coal, Elkhorn Coal, Ulvah Coal, Mayking Coal, Elk Creek Coal and other coal companies.

The Eagle described Frazier as an “orator” who “beyone dispute delivered the ideal speech of the evening.” The paper also said the speech was received with “thunderous applause.”

Here is what Frazier said:

“I note that the program mentions that I address a few remarks to that section of our commonwealth sometimes regarded by our city folks as an isolated, worthless, disgraceful country, and at times rather ‘unhealthy fur furriners’; but to me it has always been a land of unfold treasure, a storehouse of hidden wealth, just beginning to bud and blossom revealing her true value to the commercial world.

“Let us pause for the moment and turn back the dusty pages of Kentucky mountain history, and once again dwell with the conditions that were, so as to have a full appreciation of the conditions that are. Here was a country, a masterpiece sculptured and fashioned by the hand of the Master. Its scenic beauty unequaled in all the land. Its endowment being the heritage of minerals of quality and quantity.

“While in this embryonic state, its wealth of tradition found birth through the daring exploits of Daniel Boone.

“But that venerable pioneer himself failed to appreciate its intrinsic value. He came, marveled at its majestic beauty and marched on. The mountains soon became but a purple haze in the East. The foothills gave way to the fertile plains of bluegrass. There he made a clearing, built his cabin and called it home. The trail he blazed soon became a beaten path for courageous blood, trod by the flower of Virginian Cavalier stock, whose posterity has made your nationally known Bluegrass what she is today.

“Yet there came another race. Men, probably not so daring as the Cavalier, but possessing an unfaltering love for freedom, sought the hills of Kentucky as their promised land. The Ulster Scot came with no trails to guide him. Still glowing in his mind was the fire of undying hate for the mandatory religious English doctrine. He longed for the open unfrequented places, where he might worship according to the dictates of his own conscience. His Mecca was the mountains. His sanctuary was their peaceful valleys. Burning his bridges behind him, for he gave no thought to returning.

“So there in the Hills of Kentucky he likewise cleared the land of his choice, built his cabin and called it home. He fought the ravages and wild beasts of the forests, and tilled a patch of corn on the hillside between shots. He was heavily handicapped by the absence of his farm machinery that he was forced to leave behind on account of the country there which he traveled, but his innate intuition made up the loss. He unconsciously dropped from the steady march of civilization, and rested for a spell. The geographical condition of the country made it practically impossible for him to compete with his contemporaries of the flat country to the west.

“Pride forbade the seeking of relief from the East; yet the purest of blood surged through his veins. He possessed a logically inventive mind and an inherent power to survive the elements. In other words he was rich. There was no helping hand to be extended to lighten his physical labors. No encouraging voice to combat the evil of discontent.

“Eastern Kentucky, once a wilderness of inactivity, is now a veritable beehive of progress. From the mouth of the Big Sandy to the north, to the historical Cumberland Gap to the south, the pulse beats of progress have quickened. … Time will not permit me to go into detail and apprise you of the individual progress of our mountain counties during the past few years. Letcher county wanted roads and she got them by building them herself. Perry also was inoculated with the fever, so last fall voted a bond issue for road purposes. Knott is following in the early spring. Others have heard the clarion call of progress, have awakened and are rallying to the cause ….

“I seriously regret to apprise you at this point that the mountains have not always received the ready and welcome of her sister sections, and I say it without the least stigma of criticism of those who in their hearts know they are in fault. I am quite sure they were sincere in their actions, thinking their participation would be of no consequence and their efforts unappreciated. We believe, however, that we are entitled to the same privileges and luxuries that you enjoy, and false notes emanate from our heart-strings when the the bestowed favors of State smile on the Pennyrile, the Purchase and the Bluegrass alone.

“… Give us cooperation; we want to work with you, hand in hand, and make our lives enhance the value of our State, to ourselves and our nation.

“I do not think I have ever been accused of being of the altruistic temperament but nevertheless I cannot help but mention in closing that Eastern Kentucky and her people have much more to give than opportunities in commercial enterprises, for we have a full appreciation of the marvelous age in which we live — an era of invention and universal advancement.

“We know that in the mountains the people are being filled with a noble discontent where nothing is good enough but everything must be made better, where nothing or can be hidden, where we are turning on white light, and are near to each other, joined by the the common ties of brotherhood.”

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